The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Wilson
Reviewed by Ruth Wilson
Summary: The Bear in the Nightingale is a transliteration of Russian folklore, set deep in the northern Russian forest in the mid-1200s. In the book we see our heroine, Vasya, trying to preserve the old religion to keep her village safe from the dreadful evil gaining power in the forest. It is beautifully written and retains a real sense of its Russian heritage but is still very enjoyable to those with no knowledge of Russian folklore or history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Del Rey
External links: [ Author's website]
ISBN: 978-1785031052

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There seems to be a lot of re-imaginings of fairy tales at the moment, but this is so much more than that. The Bear and the Nightingale is set in the distant past of Rus in the mid-1200s. This is folklore rather than fairy tales, with sprites and guardians of hearth and home, and it is beautifully crafted. Katherine Arden acknowledges that she has used considerable poetic licence when translating names to make it more friendly to the English reader and, as one who has little knowledge of Russian folklore, it works wonderfully. Russian names can be complicated and problematic for English readers but there are no such issues here, names sound wonderful on the tongue but still keep a sense of their historical origin.

This is an intelligent novel, with subtleties and quirks and it gently shows a larger historical setting, that of the fading of a nation's old religion as it is replaced by the increasing reach and power of Christianity, alongside the basic daily struggle of the ordinary people desperately trying to survive the Russian winter. Father Konstantin, himself a victim of political power struggles, arrives at the village in the north Russian forest and finds himself conflicted when his head is turned by the strange and unusual Vasya. He sets about exorcising the demons in the village but, in doing so, he is the vessel for great evil to be unleashed. Vasya is the only true believer left and battles to save those creatures who help to keep the evil at bay, but to do this she has to refuse to conform with society's expectations of women.

The characters are extremely well crafted, with great depth of feeling. My favourite character is the wonderfully written Father Konstantin who is marvelously flawed. Arden makes him both sinister and sympathetic as he wrestles with demons both literally and figuratively. His desperation to be good and holy is at war with his pride and lust for fame and this desperation is used against him by the evil lurking in the forest. Even when he feels he is in the wrong, even when he is proven wrong, he struggles to feel apologetic such is his sense of personal power and pride of being a powerful man in a man's world. I hope we meet Father Konstantin again in the future novels as I thought he was the perfect adversary for Vasya's freedom and lack of conformity.

The Bear and the Nightingale is the first of a trilogy but this book stands alone as a story. Vasya's adventures will continue in the next book but this one is written and concluded in its own right and this is perhaps the only negative with the book. The characters that I presume we will meet again are given the time to be well established and well-rounded but some characters, for example Vasya's step mother Anna, are written only to prop up the plot and can feel a little thin. My biggest disappointment is that this also applies to the great evil lurking in the forest, and I felt that the suspense and danger so carefully built up throughout the book was somewhat let down in the final battle. Having said that, the next book is called The Girl in the Tower, and I will definitely read it when it is released next year and I shall keep my fingers crossed that Father Konstantin will pop up again.

Alternatively, you could try The Skull in the Woods by Sandra Greaves.

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Buy The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden at


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